There's no doubt, it is an unusual name for Devon and one that seems to cause much mirth and merriment here when I ask "who's moved my Adalbert Stifter?" I make no apology for more Adalbert because I've just finished Brigitta from the volume of stories of the same title and am starting to agree with Thomas Mann.
Is that a good thing? I know I've never finished The Magic Mountain, but I've always meant to.
Stifter, according to Thomas Mann, was 'one of the most extraordinary, the most enigmatic, the most secretly daring and the most strangely gripping narrators in world literature.'
As the translator of this volume Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly elaborates, in 1852 Stifter himself explained that
'he chose to describe small scale events and gradual happenings rather than large-scale violent ones because such gradual happenings demonstrate the forces that govern the world more clearly than do the violent ones.'
This in some part contributing to a general misunderstanding of Stifter's writing and pigeon-holing him as a 'charming chronicler of the countryside.'
I was reminded of Henry James's remarks about that 'horse-faced bluestocking' George Eliot as I started to read Brigitta, a woman whose beauty is most certainly inner rather than outer as the story begins with some of Stifter's traditional preliminary analytical scene-setting
'The face of an ugly person often has for us an inner beauty, which we cannot relate then and there to any intrinsic value, while the features of another, of which everyone says that they possess the greatest beauty, appear to us cold and empty.'
So off we trot with our narrator, on horseback across the Hungarian Steppes to stay on the country estate of an aquaintance, a man he has met on his travels, but one who has struck him as having hidden depths.Living nearby the enigmatic and fiercely independent Brigitta, no oil painting by all accounts, unloved as a child, unlucky in love and marriage and now managing her own neighbouring estate with a skill and energy to match any man.
To tell more would be to spoil, but I didn't guess the twist until the final few pages but yet again as I turned the final page I knew I'd read a little masterpiece. Like Abdias, another of Stifter's fine exercises in seeing with the heart not just the eyes. The unamed narrator makes countless visual misjudgements, distance, objects, identity and it is Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly who pointed that out to me, plus the fact that the expected first person narrative directness and immediacy is not evident, Stifter cleverly keeping his narrator and his reader a step removed from events
' the narration is as much a veil as it is a window.'
Having bandied the word novella around for years and decided it was just a short novel
I'm also intrigued about the actual definition of what is known in German literature as novellen.Character, incident, theme all focused on a single issue of great significance.
'The scene is set in the recognisable world but casts a lurid light on that world'.
I hadn't really fully appreciated that before.
It all adds much more to the reading and explains the slightly intangible unexplainable feelings that remain when you have read one.
It's a concentrated mood as much as anything and it lingers.
All this adds up to yet another memorable read and one I would surely have missed but for the arrival of this book from Angel Classics.
Looking forward to as much Adalbert as the translators have translated and thanks to Mark Thwaite for flagging up the W.G.Sebald connection. I'm exploring that alongside the only critical study of Adalbert Stifter that I can find in English. Long out of print so many thanks to Marlborough College library for throwing out Adalbert Stifter, A Critical Study by Martin & Erika Swales thus enabling me to snap it up on Amazon Marketplace for just a few pounds. Money well-spent I think because I now want to know all there is to know about Adalbert.